During the 19th century the match manufacturer, Bryant and May, was one of the main employers in Bow in the East End of London. Although playing with matches is, as we all know, dangerous; at that time just making matches could be deadly. Most of the people working in the factory were women, known as match girls.
The Bryant and May Match Girls Strike
During its most busy period, the Bryant and May factory employed more than 2,000 girls and women. In 1888, bad working conditions and the toxic materials used in the manufacturing process forced the match girls to go on one of the best known strikes in London.
Why Did the Match Girls Go On Strike?
At this time, matches were made with white phosphorus; this substance formed the match head. This is a toxic material that can seriously damage your health if you handle it or come into close contact with it on a regular basis. But, it was the ideal substance to use for match manufacturers, as it was much cheaper than the safer alternative, red phosphorus.
Many of the match girls who worked with white phosphorus would develop a condition that they called “phossy jaw”, although its medical name is phosphorus necrosis of the jaw. To start with, they would get really severe toothaches and their gums would swell.
Then, they would develop abscesses on their jaw bones. You could tell that you had it because your bones would glow greeny-white in the dark. Over time, it could lead to brain damage, organ failure and then death. The only solution once you had “phossy jaw” was to have the jaw bones that were infected surgically removed. This wasn’t much of a solution at the time.
The match girls had more to worry about than “phossy jaw” however. The working conditions in the Bryant and May factory were fairly bad. They worked for fourteen hours a day for very little pay and were fined regularly for minor infractions, reducing their meagre pay even more. Finally, the match girls cracked when one of them was dismissed in July 1888 and they went on strike.
The Match Girls Strike
It is thought that around 1,400 members of the workers decided to go on strike initially. This obviously scared the factory managers who virtually immediately offered to give the sacked woman her job back. But, by this stage, the workers had had enough and started to ask for other things. For example, they demanded that management stopped fining them. By the 6th July 1888, the strike had spread across the factory and nobody was working.
Social activists had been aware of conditions in the factory for a while, and the match girls now involved Annie Besant who had already published a damning article on Bryant and May before the strike. She, some newspapers and other social activists such as George Bernard Shaw, started a strike fund to distribute emergency money to the striking workforce to keep them going. This, combined with a lot of adverse publicity and a meeting between some of the workers and some MPs in parliament, started to really worry factory managers. They agreed to meet with the workers to try to stop the strike with the help of Annie Besant.
Conditions at Bryant and May After the Strike
By the 16th July 1888, management and workers had agreed some core changes to working conditions. Management agreed to do away with unfair fines and to allow workers to approach them with problems directly. Before, they had had to talk to their supervisors who often did not tell managers that there were any problems. From a medical perspective, the factory owners also agreed that workers could eat in a room separate to their workplaces so that their food would not become contaminated by white phosphorus.
Bryant and May also started a range of welfare initiatives on site such as providing a dentist for workers. The factory would still, however, continue to use white phosphorus and pay conditions generally did not improve.
The Salvation Army and Red Phosphorus
Activists continued to lobby generally against the use of white phosphorus in match production. In the 1890s, the Salvation Army took direct action and started its own match making factory in the area. This factory used the safer red phosphorus. It also paid more fairly than other factories.
This added to the strain on Bryant and May who continued to get a lot of negative publicity. By the early 1900s, the Bryant and May factory stopped using white phosphorus and switched to red. Ironically, the Salvation Army factory found it hard to turn a profit, as red phosphorus made matches much more expensive and Bryant and May bought their factory in 1901. By 1908, the use of white phosphorus in match manufacturing was banned by the government.